Umami is the Japanese word for deliciousness.  Read more in this week's column, 'Ooh-Mammy' . (Photo: Contributed)
Umami is the Japanese word for deliciousness. Read more in this week's column, 'Ooh-Mammy' . (Photo: Contributed)


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There is a concept in food that has been around for a while, but like most things to do with food, it has become trendy now that someone discovered it and has put a cool name to it. I wanted to share this with you as I thought it was quite funny, and a good example of how to have fun and not take ourselves too seriously. Are you ready?

The concept I speak of is called “umami” (just like this week’s title) which loosely translated is the Japanese word for deliciousness. It has been known in Asia for almost a hundred years, thanks in no small part to the scientist (here it comes, folks) who invented MSG.

Maybe I am being silly, but I thought it was funny and even a bit cute that something which people decided had a negative effect on them was now being touted as part of a concept that should be embraced as the new exciting food experience. Of course now the celebrity chefs speak about foods with natural umami (it’s the G in MSG – glutamate – that makes foods very flavourful, or full of umami.) They say that umami could be the fifth taste discernible to us, after the traditional (and one is supposed to believe less interesting, I think) sweet, sour, salty and bitter. They also say that MSG is the poster child for umami in the same way that sugar is for sweet things and salt is for salty things. There is even talk now that if we crave umami-rich foods it is because our bodies need protein, in the same manner we crave sweets if we are low in carbs. Since mushrooms are known to be full of umami, is that motivation to put them over a steak? (That is what the Mushroom Council said you should do in a recently released promotional piece entitled, “Umami: If You Got It, Flaunt It!” – no kidding here I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried! Who knew there was a Mushroom Council?)

Okay, I know, a foodie like me shouldn’t be so cavalier about a new food experience. Renowned chefs are taking umami seriously, experimenting with trying to get more bang for their food buck. Adding Parmesan cheese, or even ketchup or soy sauce can increase the umami in a dish. Techniques of preparing food that break down proteins increase umami too – drying or slow cooking are examples. Combine the two and you get a double whammy, so foods like sun-dried tomatoes are now called “umami bombs”. I ask you, how can you take that kind of thing seriously?

Just so you know, I have no hard feelings against trendy food stuff, I have attached a recipe – one even from a celebrity chef in San Francisco. It is the ingredients here that are the celebrity though, as the combination of flavours really does make a great soup (even with winter canned tomatoes).

So, call it something fancy when it’s homemade or call it nasty when it gets added to takeout or processed food, but this ooh-Mammy thing makes for fun food! Bon Appetit.

Celebrity Tomato Soup

Roasting tomatoes increases their umami taste. In this recipe from Gary Danko, chef at San Francisco's Restaurant Gary Danko, the addition of tomato paste, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce (based partially on umami-rich anchovies), soy sauce and grated Parmesan pumps up the rich, savory taste. When using canned tomatoes, Mr. Danko prefers to use whole tomatoes in purée, imported from Italy. However, canned whole tomatoes in juice will work as well.

Yield: Serves 6 (about 8 cups)
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 55 minutes total

  • 2 pounds plum Roma tomatoes or 3 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes
  • 6 garlic cloves smashed and peeled
  • 3 small yellow onions (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 stalk celery or ½ fennel bulb (about 4 ounces), cut into ¼-inch dice
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
  • 2-3 cups chicken broth, vegetable stock or water
  • 4-6 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 2 fresh mint leaves, chopped
  • ¼ cup finely grated Parmigiana Reggiano cheese

    Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
    If using fresh tomatoes, wash, dry and core them. If using canned tomatoes, drain tomatoes, reserving the purée or juice. Halve the tomatoes lengthwise.
    Divide tomatoes between 2 shallow baking pans, arranging them cut-side down in a single layer without crowding. Sprinkle the garlic, onions, salt and thyme over the tomatoes and drizzle with oil.
    Roast until tomatoes are slightly browned and tender, about 45 minutes. Let cool slightly.
    Put the celery or fennel, tomato paste, ketchup, Worcestershire, Tabasco and soy sauce in a blender. Add some of the roasted tomato mixture and stock and blend until smooth. Strain through a medium strainer into a pot, pressing the solids with the bottom of a ladle or a rubber spatula to remove the seeds and small skin particles. Working in small batches, continue to purée and strain the remaining tomato mixture, the reserved purée or juices from the can and the remaining stock into the pot, using 2 cups of liquid total.
    Bring soup to a slow simmer over medium-high heat, stirring to combine, about 10 minutes. Thin with additional stock if necessary. Correct salt as needed.
    Serve in bowls with a sprinkle of basil, mint and cheese.


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    About the Author

    Kristin Peturson-Laprise is a customer experience specialist by trade, which means she is someone passionate about people having a good time. 

    Her company, Wow Service Mentor, helps businesses enhance their customer experience through hands-on training, service programs, and special event coordination.

    Kristin enjoys her own experiences too, and that is what she writes about in this column. She and her husband Martin Laprise (also known as Chef Martin, of The Chef Instead) love to share their passion for food and entertaining.  

    Kristin says:

    "Wikipedia lists a gourmand as a person who takes great pleasure in food. I have taken the concept of gourmandise, or enjoying something to the fullest, in all parts of my life. I love to grow and cook food, and I loved wine enough to become a Sommelier. I call a meal a success when I can convey that 'sense of place' from where the food has come . . . the French call that terroir, but I just call it the full experience. It might mean tasting the flavours of my own garden, or transporting everyone at the table to a faraway place, reminiscent of travels or dreams we have had."


    E-mail Kristin at:  [email protected]

    Check out her website here:  www.wowservicementor.com


    The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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